Tony McKenna

Tony McKenna

Tony McKenna is a writer, his latest book is 'Angels and Demons: A Radical Anthology of Political Lives' (Zero Books).

After Life
Monday, 08 July 2019 07:43

After Life

Tony McKenna reviews After Life, the new black comedy-drama written by Ricky Gervais for Netflix

Ricky Gervais has two seminal qualities which make him a wonderful writer.  One, he has a capacity for cruelty, a hangover from his background as comedian, for good comedy is often cruel. Gervais does not suffer fools lightly and often raises up the stupidities of others in terms of the most lacerating satire and critique.  The other is a great capacity for humanism; to see how, at their depths, even people who appear on the surface to be arrogant and toxic, are often just bumbling along, ineptly, hopefully and without any real malice.   These two moments – a lacerating cruelty and a more fallible humanity – reached a perfect comic fusion with Gervais' most iconic creation, the office manager David Brent. 

Brent was, for all intents and purposes, a complete arsehole.  He was the type of man who was capable of saying things like 'What is the single most important thing for a company? Is it the building? Is it the stock? Is it the turnover? It's the people, investment in people' – with a straight face.  He was this horrific whirlwind of mangled motivational soundbite along with the type of cod philosophy haphazardly snatched from the most ghastly and saccharine self-help manual.  He would subject the people under him to his god-awful comedy routines, labouring under the delusion that he was witty and charismatic, and bolstered by a sense that, as their boss, the subordinates in the office were compelled to listen to him – quite literally a captive audience.

And yet, the most remarkable thing about Brent was that you, the viewer, could never really despise him.  You winced, as he embarrassed himself, as his often rather sleazy attempts to ingratiate himself with others crashed and burned, and you squirmed as he lurched between platitude and prejudice – but you could never really hate him because there was nothing of cruelty in what he was.  Just the opposite in fact.  Underneath all the twattish management twaddle, there lurked a confused but fundamentally well-intentioned personality desperately seeking some kind of connection with others.

Creating a character so finally finessed between the ghastly and the generous exhibited the scalpel-like fineness of Gervais' writing and was one of the reasons why I was looking forward to his new Netflix series After Life.  But here, however, Gervais is unable to walk that same fine line; for his protagonist is much more ghastly but far less generous. Tony is a middle-aged man who has just lost his wife to cancer.   In the aftermath of that event, he is plunged into abject hopelessness and this takes the form of a comic nihilism whereby he abandons any politeness or pretence and says to others – both close friends and strangers – exactly what he thinks all of the time.

The idea is that although Tony is impossibly cruel, sarcastic and hurtful to virtually everyone who comes into his orbit, this is because he is because he is so grief-stricken and devastated – that behind the irate anger at the world lives a fundamentally kind and generous soul.  It's a good premise, but it doesn't work because Gervais is never able to evoke any genuine sense of kindness or generosity on Tony's part.  He assures us that Tony does have these qualities, over and over in fact.  Tony spends some of his time watching videos his wife recorded for him before she passed away.   Every now and then she will describe him with a stoical chuckle as a 'fat twat' thus allowing the writer to state in very bald terms that these scenes are earthy and real rather than trite and sentimental.  But once that is got out the way, she harps on ad infinitum about what a truly remarkable, special, good person he is and how she knew it from the very first moment she laid eyes on him, how much he has to offer the world, and so on.  She is quite literally on her deathbed, so you wouldn't reasonably expect her to start ragging maliciously on her beloved, but what you get from these snippets is almost nothing about her character, who she was, and very little about the actual details and events of the relationship between them.  Rather she simply reveres him.  She becomes little more than a prop for his grief, a device to throw into relief just how worthy he is and how much he is suffering.

Edgy or unkind?

And the same is true with every other character.  They all, every single one of them, spend time riffing on how great, how kind, how funny and how good the Gervais lead is while remaining largely indifferent to the sheer cruelty of what he says and does.  He treats his co-worker, the photographer Lenny, with visceral contempt, harping on about how physically repulsive he is, encouraging others to ridicule the disgusting image of him consuming food, pinching the fat at the back of his neck, publically interrogating Lenny's partner as to what she could possibly see in someone so ridiculous, lacking and ugly.  This kind of stuff is, I guess, supposed to be edgy, but really it just comes across as unkind.  Lenny does not just absorb the insults Tony heaps upon him with muted bemusement, he also looks at Tony with wide-eyed and gormless adoration for he too understands how privileged he is to be in the same space as this remarkable yet damaged human being.

Tmck2

Tony's elderly father is perhaps the most depressing of all the props.  He is suffering from dementia and is living in a care home. Tony comes to visit him.  The comedy is derived from the fact that Tony's ailing dad, being old and demented, is extremely 'politically incorrect'.  So he will suddenly say something racist or inappropriately sexual, and a good laugh will be had by all. Tony's father's entire raison d'être seems to consist in this alone. And the fact that he provides the prop by which the crotchety Gervais is able to get to know the hardworking, stoical but warm-hearted Emma, a carer at the home. 

Here the stage is set for the Gervais character to emerge from his winter hibernation of despair and disillusion, warmed by the benevolent and giving nature of Emma, the inevitable romantic foil, for she too senses the almost infinite hidden depths which lie behind the brusque exterior. Despite all the loss and suffering she has come into contact with in her job, Tony himself is the 'saddest man' she has ever seen.

Part of the problem with Tony's character, I think, is that he is a product of Gervais' own wish-fulfilment.  Tony is a bitter rebuke to the world, a rebuke addressed to all the asinine morons out there wandering about in their fog of stupidity having not yet arrived at Gervais' astute political and cultural values.  So, for instance, yet another one-dimensional character is another of Tony's colleagues, Kath.  She is particularly gormless, empty-headed and spaced out, given to mull aimlessly and endlessly over the most trivial and vapid of subjects. 

And she also happens to be religious.  Which sets the stage for the Gervais character to provide a contemptuous and 'incisive' critique of her beliefs, which essentially comes down to Tony squealing, 'yeah, well if God made everything right, then who made him, eh?'  A practical and commonsensical retort for sure, and one which perfectly expresses the crude literalism of the kind of 'New Atheism' which Gervais has so relentlessly campaigned for – a critique which remains oblivious to the profound philosophical and cosmological themes which infuse great religions and which make them resonate with so many millions of people.  And while the whole 'well who made him' charge provides a significant and perhaps insurmountable obstacle to the theorisation of any deity, those of us who are atheist proponents of the Big Bang theory (the current writer included) are ourselves subject to a similar and no less thorny dilemma (if the Big Bang created the universe what caused it?)

Character or caricature?

Kath is yet another foil, an empty and asinine caricature which exists only to be pounded by Gervais' rather vulgar anti-religious fervour.  Yet more secondary characters are called into being to perform the same banal function.  Tony is walking down the street, only to be accosted by a couple of would-be muggers.  The two teenage boys are leery, belligerent and aggressive, their accents are almost a caricature of the sneering, mindless and hate-filled 'chav'.  Cue the Gervais character, to take action. He does not cower before them, and with fearless abandonment he strikes one and berates the other in a soft, calm voice which leads them to understand that here is a man who is little concerned for his own safety and will not be intimidated. 

Disorientated and ashamed, they shrink from him.  In another lifetime perhaps Gervais might have been tempted to derive some humour from the scene, but apart from the idea of the skanky 'chavs' getting their just deserts, the exchange is humourless.   It's rather odd too, because the whole tone has more in common with something like Death Wish, the humane and humanistic middle-aged, middle-class individual with his back to the wall, finally pushed into action by the dark protean forces stirring in the impoverished mob – the chaos and menace of the streets offering up a deadly threat to the civilised and respectable nostrums of law and order.

The scene Gervais has created here verges on the ridiculous, but it also provides us a glimpse into what Tony really represents, i.e. he becomes the means by which Gervais is able to exorcise his frustrations. Tony provides an almost Nietzschean-like riposte to the social ills of the modern world, very much from the elevated perspective of a middle-class man who is now unfettered by the niceties of bourgeois respectability, and can unleash the full force of his superiority and contempt against the trudging imbeciles, non-entities and miscreants of the herd. 

The only character who is impoverished and at the bottom, who is painted sympathetically rather than with derision – a character who doesn't feel the full force of Tony's loathing and disdain – is the figure of Daphne (aka Roxy), a sex-worker.  She is intriguing, witty, damaged, brash and thoughtful.  It is a shame she doesn't have a little more screen time.  Alas, like all the women in the piece she is afflicted by a severe condition of 'Tony worship,' understanding just how remarkable he is and how much he has to give. So as he goes off to take his first tentative steps into the dating world, she pines away wistfully on just what a lucky woman his prospective date is.

After Life is not unwatchable, the dialogue is often lively and the scenes are occasionally funny.  A writer of Gervais' calibre is incapable of producing something utterly boring or utterly bad.  But in After Life he has created a fundamentally synthetic world – a rather flimsy, clichéd set of secondary characters who remain underdeveloped, and who float around the protagonist like rubber balloons, drawn by the gravity of his egoism. They are empty props which exist only to validate Tony's wit, virtue and travails, lacking any real character or content in their own right.  When the time comes, as it inevitably must, for Tony to realise that his hatred at the world is misplaced and it is really rather a jolly place after all, the shift occurs not as result of a genuine engagement with the people around him on equal terms but rather from a hastily contrived moral epiphany, a saccharine speech on the joys and wonders of the colleagues and 'friends' whom he has spent all the other episodes pitilessly humiliating.   The tone of the piece thus shifts, moving from sour and unpleasant to gushing and sentimental in its conclusion.  Given the character dynamic Gervais has created, this has the feel of inevitability.

Solidarity against everyday exploitation: Stephen King's IT
Tuesday, 25 June 2019 14:49

Solidarity against everyday exploitation: Stephen King's IT

Published in Fiction

Tony McKenna looks back at Stephen King's IT

Some years ago, a study was carried out into the fears of young children in the night. Just before the lights were turned off and the children were ready for sleep they were each asked where they thought the monster was. The majority of little boys said they believed it was hiding in the cupboard. The majority of little girls thought it was lurking under the bed. From this, the scientists derived a particularly provocative and exciting conclusion.  At the very dawn of our own pre-history, the females would have tended to be in the trees with the children; ergo they would expect any attack to come from below (underneath the bed). The males who were hunting on the ground would expect the danger to come from the side (the cupboard). The fears that very young children have at night, therefore, are the echoes of the distant primordial darkness of our most ancient origins somehow embedded in the shadowy recesses and deepest depths of our psyches.

This was, perhaps, more supposition than science. It certainly doesn't stand up as a coherent pre-historical or sociological depiction of the lives of early hominids, but at the same time it has a poetic and allegorical resonance which does register a certain type of truth. The truth being that young children are in some way closer to the type of elemental fears and instincts which, over time, we shed, as we move into adulthood, and the rules and norms of a more structured social existence take over. The fear of the monster under the bed, or the creature in the cupboard, is replaced by the rather more prosaic fears of things like unemployment, illness, poverty and old age.  

One of the strongest themes in Stephen King's IT is the recognition of this. The recognition that pre-pubescent children are in some way alive to a strange and topsy-turvy world of figures, spectres, rituals and terrors which remains invisible to adults and takes place largely under their radar. So in IT, it is 'the Losers' – the collective name for the gaggle of misfits and geeks bonded by the fact that they are all outsiders – who are able to detect that a supernatural evil is at work in their small rural town in a way in which their parents can't. It is the late 1950s and the town of Derry has seen a horrific series of deaths of young children; the adult population are bemused and benumbed by the shocking events but are unable to come to terms with what is really going on. 

The Losers Club2

The Losers, however, are able to see through the eyes of children, to gradually apprehend the supernatural reality of the threat which is confronting them. They are able to figure out the modus operandi of the sinister and murderous clown Pennywise, surely one of Kings most fantastical and terrifying creations. They come to understand that the entity which manifests as a creepy clown – or IT – exists in a subterranean realm, deep underground, lurking in the vents and the sewers, appearing to them on the periphery, in the forest, in an abandoned decaying house, on the edges of their known world.      

Like this, King is able to call into being a dualistic reality; the world of the adults over and against the world of the children: the world of the sun-drenched town centre and the library and the shops, the world of the ordinary – and then that other world, the word of the underground, of shadows and death, ancientness and decay. This is set against a rather finely wrought depiction of childhood and the way in which the Losers come together through their friendship. At first the evil shapeshifting entity appears to them individually in the guise of their worst childhood fears: for the germophobe and hypochondriac Eddie, IT appears as a leper, for Bill Desborough, the bright stuttering leader of the group, IT appears in the form of his murdered brother Georgie, and so on. These are kids who are particularly vulnerable, bullied and alienated by their peers, often ignored or mistreated by their parents – and so their connection with each other becomes quite literally a life-saving one; it becomes the way they can graduate the understanding of their own subjective fears and isolation into a broader and shared understanding of the evil which does exist, the spectre of Pennywise, and the realisation that they are the only ones who are capable of resisting it. IT is a horror story, for sure, but it is also that thing which King does so well, a coming of age tale in which the tentative friendships and puppy loves of a group of children on the cusp of adolescence bloom against a darker background of supernatural threat.       

But IT is more than a simple bogeyman.  Like the very greatest horror creations, IT in some way becomes a cipher for the ills of the historical past, a conduit through which very human evils are channelled.  At the start of the novel King describes a festival which took place in Derry, a fun, frolicking, light-hearted occasion. A gay couple are depicted holding hands. Later, as night falls, they are attacked, and one of them is murdered. The way King describes the political and spiritual psychologies of the homophobes who carry out this attack throws into relief his attention to the little, gentle details which underpin the affection and love of the two men. It is an acute, tragic and highly modern description of the way in which prejudice operates and the bleak anomie and hatred which lies behind it.

And, of course, when the homophobes toss the victim over the bridge, having very nearly beaten him to death, the spectre of the clown is waiting in the shadows underneath, like an awful troll in some medieval fairy tale. King's point, here and elsewhere, is that the adults in the town remain oblivious not only to the supernatural atrocities which IT carries out, but they are also capable of turning a blind eye to the run of the mill oppressions endured by those who somehow fall outside the political and cultural mainstream – the disempowered, the marginalised, the undesirables. IT draws fuel for its supernatural sadism from the everyday forms of cruelty which take place in and through very human relationships of power and exploitation. It is fitting, therefore, that the challenge to Pennywise's dark dominion over the town comes from the solidarity which forms through a group of children who are themselves exiles from the mainstream – misfits and oddballs, the objects of extreme bullying.  

King's wonderful novel pans several decades, flitting back and forth in time from the children the Losers were, to the adults approaching middle-age they are destined to become. And this, I think, allows for the novel's central conceit; as we become adults, we leave our most elemental and primitive fears behind – adulthood consists, in part, of precisely this. In IT, the Losers experience a form of collective amnesia; as they grow up and their battle with Pennywise is consigned to the past – they forget all about IT, they settle into their adult lives and they even forgo the memories of each other. 

What is truly provocative and terrifying is the moment when, from within the certainty and normality of adulthood, IT's malevolent evil begins to stir again, and the Losers are left with the harrowing realisation that their primitive childhood fears and superstitions were all too real. The monster never really left the cupboard, rather it remained, wreathed in darkness, waiting for its time to come. 

End of Thrones
Monday, 12 December 2016 15:09

End of Thrones

Published in Fiction

Tony McKenna argues that the historical necessity embedded in the story and characters of Game of Thrones means that there is only one way it can end.

Winter is coming, for Game of Thrones is now approaching its denouement with the penultimate series scheduled for next year and the final one arriving the year after that. Remarkable not only for its writing, depth of character, feudal brutality, blood-soaked magicking and otherworldly pathos, the novels and the show have bled into the fabric of the twenty-first century imagination, creating an independent industry of cosplay, fan-fiction and comic-book convention, and providing a whole literary genre with a new lease of life.   

A building discussion revolves around how the series/books will be concluded.   In the case of Game of Thrones this is a particularly interesting question.  One of author George RR Martin’s great strengths is the vastness and complexity of the fantasy world he has brought into being; not only in terms of its topography – the various kingdoms, the two continents, the myriad of hamlets and keeps and ports and temples – but also the sheer number of plotlines which operate coextensively at any given point.  And this is what makes bringing the books/series to a coherent resolution such a challenging task from the perspective of the writer.  How does one integrate Arya’s revenge plotline, with Daenerys’ tale of slave liberation coupled with dragons of mass destruction?  How can one blend the civil war which is taking place between the Lannisters, the Starks, the Tyrells, the Baratheons et al. – with the White Walkers whose undead legions are threatening to overwhelm the defences of the Nights Watch and storm the wall once and for all?  This article attempts to answer these questions.    

Weaker literary endeavours – from much of Modernist literature to a soap opera like EastEnders – are characterised by an abiding fact: they suffer, more broadly, from a lack of historical necessity.  What I mean by this becomes clear when we consider something like EastEnders.  Every so often, the writers of the soap bring a storyline to fruition by posing a cliff hanger.  So, for example, in 2001 they brought us the ‘Who shot Phil Mitchell?’ storyline which saw the brooding cockney villain almost dispatched by a mystery assailant on his doorstep.  Because the soap had been bedevilled by leaks, the press would often get the revelation - the solution to the ‘Whodunit?’ - before the episode itself had gone to air, thus depriving it of much of its dramatic impact.  At this point, the producers changed tack.   They realised they could film six or seven endings, in which a different character was revealed as the attempted murderer in each case, and then one character in particular would be selected, the episode aired, and the spoiler-press thwarted in its endeavours.

But the fact that they began to resort to such an ingenious tactic, on a regular basis, also revealed the paper thin level of characterisation the writers were employing.   There was no real underlying necessity by which an action a character took was grown out of a particular set of conditions and circumstances unique to that character.  Rather the murderer or the arsonist or the adulterer could be anyone and everyone.  The plot ‘twist’ could fall at random on any head.  And this is a sign of poor literature.  If one is keenly following a murder mystery, and the murderer is eventually unmasked by the detective as the postman who appeared fleetingly in a scene many pages before, then the reader feels thwarted and cheated, for the raison d'être of the character has by no means been developed and the necessity which underpins his or her action (the murder) has been by no means adduced.  In contrast the true plot twist, the finest form of dramatic revelation, is not simply one which comes out of the blue.  It comes as a surprise, yes – its power relies on the fact that it is unexpected.  But, as soon as the writer/viewer begins to think about it, he or she can see that the clues and signs were there all along – that the necessity and reason for the plot-twist/conclusion had been cultivated throughout the development of the plot, albeit invisibly and from behind the scenes.  Think of something like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects.  Both films provide two of the greatest twists in history – and without going into the details and risking the possibility of spoilers – one is aware that both use the same technique: once the revelation has been announced the viewer is treated to a quick flashback of past scenes – scenes which at the time appeared entirely incidental – but which reveal their full meaning in light of the plot twist.  In other words, an ending with genuine aesthetic integrity has to already be present, latently, in the beginnings; the oak, to paraphrase Hegel, must be immanent in the acorn.  

I say this by way of consideration of Game of Thrones.  If one believes that Game of Thrones is great art (as I do) then it follows that the ending which has yet to be written, nevertheless still exists as a latent necessity, as a ghostly outline, in the characters and plot which have been unfurled thus far.  On the same note, when Michelangelo suggests that the statue is already inside the bloc of marble, the sculptor’s job is merely to carve away the residue material – it is to this type of aesthetic necessity that the great renaissance artist alludes.  In order to discover the ending of Game of Thrones we must peel away all the paraphernalia of the plot and locate the latent necessities which underpin it. We must reference the fundamental nature of the fantasy world which Game of Thrones calls into being. 

In essence it is a world that involves a predominantly feudal centre with various slave economies and nomadic societies at work on the periphery. Some of the feudal polities are decadent and corrupt – the Lannisters for instance, who come to control the Iron Throne – are ruthless, acquisitive and power-hungry; a clear nod toward the feudal absolutism of the Tudor age in which one dynasty was eventually able to submit a series of vassal lords to itself in and through the tax impositions of an increasingly unified state – but a state which was achieved at the price of civil war, mendaciousness, and increasing ties with the financial priests of a developing commercial bourgeoisie.  The Starks, on the other hand, represent a more benevolent vision of an earlier medievalism in which more parochial forms of kingship operated largely unmolested by the external stresses of an encroaching market economy and a centralized absolutism.  

The Lannisters, though they are of the high aristocracy, are nevertheless aware that much of their power is buttressed on a burgeoning market economy.  Witness Tywin’s (the head of the House) warning to his daughter Cersei:  ‘And that's what the Iron Bank is- a temple. We all live in its shadow, and almost none of us know it. You can't run from them, you can't cheat them, you can't sway them with excuses. If you owe them money, and you don't want to crumble yourself... you pay it back.’ ("First of His Name")  Although the Lannisters are profligate spenders and feast and revel in the debauched manner of the aristocrats of yore, although they are prey to the same religious superstitions, and privy to the same honours system of knightly ideals, nevertheless this veneer of ideology provides little more than the decaying facade of a once glittering exterior, for the Lannisters - and Tywin in particular - have understood that such values are being eroded inevitably by the logic and intrusions of a market economy.  For this reason despite all their aristocratic glamour and finery, the unofficial motto of House Lannister is rather more prosaic – ‘A Lannister always pays his debts.’

The essence of the Starks, on the other hand, is sundered in an earlier feudal archetype which precedes feudal absolutism and eventually discovers itself in contradiction to it.    Winterfell, the Starks' kingdom, is contrasted with the seat of the Lannisters, Kings Landing.   Winterfell is grey and provincial but homely; lanterns burn at night revealing the thick, dark forests beyond, and in the day, the main square is alive bustling with peasants and artisans, and it is here where the little lords and ladies of the Stark clan mix freely with the denizens of the castle keep.   In Kings landing, however, in the baking streets of the sun-soaked metropolis, the Lannisters and their consorts are rarely ever glimpsed, and when they do appear, they are surrounded by the circle of their lethal pretorian guard.  The Starks represent a more embryonic social form whereby the state has not yet fully abstracted itself from the community; the Lannisters, on the other hand, feel themselves to be a distinct and elevated social power, a qualitatively superior species from those they oppress.  Ned Stark believes fully in the religious and chivalric values of the knightly ideal for he is still bound to his community immanently and experiences an organic sense of duty and responsibility toward those he leads.  The Lannister’s pay lip-service to such values but in reality their ties to high finance and the commitment to the shoring up of a supra-state which has raised itself above a multitude of individual kingships and communities mean that the medieval values of honour and duty have ceased to correspond to the realities of their social position as rulers who are verging on some form of post-feudal absolutism.      

And it is this historical contrast which holds the key to the tragedy of the Starks and is evinced in the conflict between Ned Stark and Cersei Lannister.   When Ned Stark discovers that Cersei Lannister’s children are the product of incest and therefore not the legitimate future kings according to the sacred tenets of bloodline, he is appalled and realises it is his duty to reveal the truth; but at the same time he acts generously, forewarning his antagonist, giving Cersei Lannister time to evacuate her children, for Ned Stark feels that their slaughter would be a blemish on his honour and conscience.   In the moment when he displays such munificence, Cersei’s response comes as a soft, sibilant rebuke, for the ruthless Queen discerns the weakness which is latent in such generosity – ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.’ ("You Win or You Die")  As a result, because of the fact that Cersei is given this window, she has time to manoeuvre, assassinate her husband, and ensure Ned’s downfall.   A similar development is played out in the case of Rob Stark, the young wolf, who wins battle after battle fighting with honour and humanity.    It is no coincidence, therefore, that when his demise finally comes, it takes place at a wedding feast where Rob Stark and his entourage are slaughtered in direct violation of the chivalric code by a pre-orchestrated plot which has seen the Lannisters use the power of the royal purse to buy off one of the Stark’s allies in the North.

But even though we, the audience, are desperate for the gruff, steadfast Starks to rout the slippery, corrupt, power-hungry Lannisters, the historical contradiction which drives the logic of the plot means that such a result simply can’t transpire.  The defeat of the Starks by the Lannisters is in some sense pre-ordained; it marks in a fantasy form the erosion of a more communal based form of kingship by the logic and the prerogatives of an encroaching moneyed economy.   The civil war of the five kings is still far from over; at the end of series six Cersei is herself ensconced in the Iron Throne, while it seems as though John Snow, although a ‘bastard’, is a likely candidate to carry on the Stark’s struggle.  Jon Snow is presented as the illegitimate son of Ned Stark; he is, therefore, an aristocratic outcast – but although he is ostracized by way of his lack of name - spiritually speaking, he is very much the inheritor of the Stark legacy and the set of familial values which go with it.  Snow is gruff but thoughtful, determined but compassionate, and feels a great sense of duty to those he is given to command.    He is a courageous warrior who leads his troops into battle, eats with them in the mess, and shares many of their experiences, remaining attuned to their thoughts and feelings, and often heeding their advice.

 At the end of series six, having been betrayed, stabbed and then brought back from the dead by the dark magic of a priestess representing a cult of fire – Snow ousts the evil Ramsay Bolton and looks on course to take control of the North.  An ending which sees Snow vanquish the Lannisters would be highly satisfying but again would violate the underlying historical logic of the piece which exhibits in its tragic arc the way in which the values of an honour, clan based system which grows out of a more organic community are destined to perish.   If one begins with Ned Stark as Lord of Winterfell and one concludes with a similar feudal archetype – Jon Snow winning the North (and later the whole of Westeros) – then the motif which really gives the series/novels their power; the sense that winter is coming, that an epoch is in the process of passing from the scene of necessity - that the shadows of a new reality are drawing close; if one returns to a sense of unmediated feudal harmony, then the underlying thrust and direction of the aesthetic is artificially spun into reverse.

Of course, it is at the end of the sixth series when it is revealed how Ned Stark has taken Jon Snow under his wing as a ‘bastard’ in order to cover up the child’s true identity as a Targaryen and thus keep him safe.   The Targaryen twist is important because as Jon Snow cements his power as the King of the North, to the Mystical East, the mother of dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, is also on the move.  Like Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen is a driven, powerful leader with a strong sense of compassion and the need to act honourably.  During her campaign she has allied herself with the Dothraki, a group of nomadic warriors who are again bound together in a more cohesive community which places critical emphasis on honour, bloodline and conquest.  Though it is a profoundly patriarchal society, Daenerys is able to overcome her innate disadvantage as a woman with the courage she displays, the force of her will, and also her compassion.   She fashions her own army made of Dothraki loyalists and the rebel slaves she has freed on the way.    Everything at this point suggests that Daenerys will link with her brother once she crosses the great sea, that she and Snow together will bring justice to the battle weary, war-riven Westeros and perhaps inaugurate a new epoch. 

But the idea of Daenerys pacifying Westeros would mean absolving the plot of the same social contradictions.  Daenerys, like Jon, is once again redolent of an older archetype – both are bound to their armies by their noble lineage but also by the fact and force of their personalities and their sense of a moral imperative grounded in tradition, duty and the wider community.  What becomes clear in the trajectory of the Khaleesi plotline is how difficult it is to impose these values from above on societies which have fundamentally different social structures.  When Daenerys liberates colonies which are predicated on slavery, she finds that the old mode of production begins to assert itself once more; her armies can subdue the former slave masters but are incapable of replacing them with a blueprint for a new social order.  Once her troops are forced to move on, the old social form reasserts itself, even if there are now a new set of masters at the top.  One should note, in passing, just how historically astute this is.  When slave rebellions did take place in the Ancient world, they were sometimes capable of inflicting great defeats on the old order, as was the case with Spartacus, but they were incapable of replacing it with a fundamentally new model of social organization.      

And this brings us to the crux of the matter.  Daenerys’ ambition is to sit on the Iron Throne – to place herself in the seat of feudal absolutism - is entirely at odds with the nature of her own historical role.  As a liberator, freedom fighter and rebel queen who stands at the head of a nomadic army which attains a certain democratic character precisely because of a highly undifferentiated social structure and primitive division of labour, Daenerys is bound to her troops for she moves among them and experiences them as the outcrops of a vast extended family with herself at the centre. Such a paradigm of leadership could only have grown out of a nomadic society welded together by bloodlines into a series of relatively homogeneous blocs or clans.  But such a model of leadership would be out of sync with the historical demands of the Iron Throne and the social structures which underpin it.  If Daenerys Targaryen were to defeat the Lannisters bringing the civil war which has inflicted Westeros to a close - she would not then be able to govern in and through a direct mediation with the vastly differentiated, highly stratified peoples whose towns and villages were scattered across a vast terrain of competing, often highly antagonistic fiefdoms. 

To power the centralized state would increasingly require the force of a professional standing army – a move which starts to take place in British history during the 100 Year War – in order to stabilize and facilitate a much wider and integrated system of bureaucracy by which tax could be syphoned from the peripheries to the centre.  In adopting the mantle of feudal absolutism, Daenerys Targaryen would be forced to shed the nomadic values which compel her to challenge the corruption and injustice of the Westerorosi political state; she would, of necessity, become abstracted from the populous by way of the absolutist machine; she would require the funding of the nascent bourgeoisie represented by the Iron Bank. To all intents and purposes then, she would be compelled to rule in Lannister-like fashion.    

So for a set of similar reasons, an ending which sees either Daenerys Targaryen or Jon Snow come to power in order to provide a more benevolent template of absolutist rule works against the grain of the historical process which is condensed into the logic of the plot.  And yet, it is clear that by the end of the sixth series, and by way of the Targaryen connection, the space has been created for Jon and Daenerys to be brought into alignment.  If they cannot consolidate some form of final victory, because they are both archetypes of a more primitive historical epoch, then what is the author’s purpose in bringing them together?  In my view, like many fantasy epics, the conclusion of Game of Thrones has to culminate with a great and mighty battle. 

This is particularly necessary for Game of Thrones because such a battle would provide a means of totalisation by which the various desperate plot threads could be woven into a higher resolution.  The Tyrells could conceivably ally with the Dornish who might well make a pact with Jon and Daenerys in order to finally settle accounts with the Lannisters and their forces.   But the backdrop to this would be the broader conflict posited between the forces of the living and the army of the dead.  And it is the implications of this broader battle which interest me.  My guess is that the Lannisters will be defeated by the Daenerys Targaryen-Jon Snow alliance because the latter have such superior forces, but my instinct is that they will be fighting a war on two fronts – that it will be in the last two series when the White Walkers begin to manifest their awesome power.  

The original set of novels is called The Song of Fire and Ice and this quite possibly hints at the way in which the two elements, of necessity, cancel one another out.   I think that beyond resolving the specific complex of storylines Game of Thrones has thrown up, the final battle with serve a more fundamental purpose.  That is, such a battle will see Daenerys’ dragon boosted army alongside Jon Snow and the forces he has marshalled thrown into collision with the White Walkers, the zombies from the frozen wastelands - and the cataclysmic impact will see both sides annihilated; both elements, fire and ice, to perish in their antipodes.  Such an ending might seem futile, even nihilistic, but again it is entirely in keeping with the aesthetic necessity which drives the piece.   Beyond everything Game of Thrones’ tragedy is one of Weberian ‘disenchantment’; it is about the way in which feudal values of honour, chivalry, tradition and familial code must inevitably disappear before the more impersonal calculations of a modern economy in which individuals are bound together solely by their position in the market and the vast cash nexus.  

An epoch replete with dragons, sorcerers, necromancers, tree sprites, giants, zombies, gods and demons must, quite literally, give up the ghost before a reality in which the more prosaic, grinding interminable forces of bureaucracy and the cold, rational calculations of the profit margin become the prime mover, the raison d'être, the moving spirit of the world.    The tragedy of Game of Thrones is nothing other than the death of magic.  And that is why both Jon and Daenerys must die, evincing the heroic qualities and aspects of the feudal age, which are nevertheless in interminable decline and about to pass from the scene.  Both Jon and Daenerys are imbued with magic; the mother of dragons able to command fire, the gallant nights watchman himself a revenant, returned from the shadowlands of the dead.    The great, apocalyptic final battle then is one in which magic is driven from the world once and for all.

But what pertains in the aftermath?  Throughout the series the elements of a new bourgeois age are alluded to.  The dour, severe directors of the Iron Bank who scribble their accounts from within grey spartan rooms are clearly the gloomy auguries of the epoch of investment and accumulation.   The puritanical and self-abasing religious sect of the Sparrows is a nod toward the Protestantism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries out of whose strict, ascetic code of abstemious discipline ‘the spirit of capitalism’ was evolved.  But although the Iron Bank itself casts a shadow across the aesthetic realm of Game of Thrones, its central actors are rarely glimpsed, and the Sparrows are wiped out as the sixth series reaches a conclusion.  Nether element could plausibly fill the void which is to be opened up by the death of magic and the demise of the heroic epoch.  There is one character, however, who represents the logic of the new age, and has been central and fully present throughout.  This is, of course, Lord Peter Baelish – commonly known as ‘Littlefinger’. 

Baelish’s ‘House’ is of meagre origins and has no distinguished bloodlines; his great grandfather was a mercenary prepared to sell his sword to the highest bidder, and though ostensibly noble, Baelish’s journey is much more that of the self-made man, the aspirant plebeian who has little fortune, no connections, nothing to fall back on except his guile, resourcefulness and determination.  Baelish represents a new breed of men and with it a new breed of politicking; one in which the familial loyalties, personal enmities, blood feuds, arranged marriages and honorific titles are to be superseded by the cold, rational calculations of the economic individualist before whose egotistic ambition all other considerations are evaporated. A new form of ambition which encompasses the ghostly never-ending circuit of exchange value and capital expansion:  ‘Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, who are given the chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm. Or the gods. Or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.’ (“The Climb”)

Baelish is a man of the future and as such he dreams its dreams.  In the final episode of season six, he reveals to Sansa Stark the true extent and depth of the ambition which moves him: ‘Every time I’m faced with a decision, I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider an action, I ask myself will this action help to make this picture a reality? Pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. A picture of me on the Iron Throne… and you by my side.’ (“The Winds of Winter”)  The fevered, fervent way in which he imparts to Sansa his vision has something of a mystical intensity, but its power is not one of prophecy in the supernatural sense.   When we consider the role that magical divination play in Game of Thrones it is often problematic and highly deceptive.  Consider Stannis Baratheon, for instance.  The Red Witch Melisandre, who is blessed with a formidable array of supernatural talents including reviving the dead, comes to predict Stannis inevitable ascension to the Iron Throne using her mystical powers.  Convinced that the sorceress is correct, Stannis prostrates himself before the Lord of Light – the deity whose power she claims to harness.  As part of this, he sacrifices human lives, even that of his own daughter, in order to pay homage to the god and ensure its favour. 

But eventually, and despite the fact of her magical power, Melisandre’s prophecy proves to be a false flag.  Stannis endures his corruption; he is compelled to murder his own daughter and his brother, but all to no avail.  In the event he is routed in two key battles, and finally slain; in the moments before his death, he is utterly despondent, bereft of any real emotion except a draining sense of disillusionment, for he finally realises that the magic he has put his faith in is nothing more than a chimera.   Again, the motif abides: magic, although a potent presence in this world, already contains within itself the germ of its own dissolution.  What makes Baelish’s vision of the future so much more potent is that it discerns a different type of preternatural power; the ghostly objectivity of a market economy which increasingly insinuates itself into the pores and pockets of all human life, warping and restructuring them from behind the scenes in accordance with its own iron like prerogatives.   What is the power of a wizard or a dragon compared with the invisible, inexorable objectivities of capital reproduction?

As the early harbinger of the new epoch Baelish’s prediction resonates with a historical power which puts the supernatural back into the box.   For this reason, once that final battle is being fought, once the old epoch and all its magical forces are teetering on the edge of extinction – it is Littlefinger, the self-made man, who will be able to manipulate the situation, to use his Machiavellian wiles in order to raise himself up onto the Iron Throne and take power in the aftermath.  And yet, this may not be the end of the story.   Revisiting Baelish’s prediction, we can see it involves two parties – himself and Sansa Stark.  This is critical.   For in a somewhat different fashion, Sansa Stark is as much a person of the new epoch as Peter Baelish himself.   Perhaps even more so.   In Sansa, the tragic trajectory of the series as a whole – the death of the feudal epoch and the prefiguration of a generalised market economy; in Sansa Stark this transition is exhibited at the level of individual destiny.  When we first meet Sansa, she is contrasted with her mischievous tomboy of a younger sister Aria.  While Aria is bold, inventive, courageous and high-spirited – from the very start cut from a heroic cloth – her older sister is naive, wet, superior and condescending.   While Aria despises the kind of life the feudal system has in store for a young noblewoman, Sansa gushingly embraces it, wanting nothing more than to drape herself in the flowing silks of an elegant princess, to enrapture her prince, and devote herself to raising highborn children. 

At this point, Sansa’s character is unsympathetic, and yet, when one sees what she has to then go through, how these rather guileless ideals are dashed on the rocks of her changing reality, the writer is able to elicit from the audience the most profound sense of pity.  For Sansa traverses the same ‘disenchantment’ which Westeros must past through as a whole; she finally meets her prince - the sadistic Joffrey - who executes her father and delights in tormenting her, before she is later palmed off on the equally horrific Ramsay Bolton who subjects her to a series of rapes.    The values of ‘romance’ and ‘magic’ in which the feudal epoch is cloaked are for Sansa the most devastating of illusions to be ripped away in the most brutal of fashions.  From her trauma, she emerges as a survivor; a quiet, melancholy but increasingly powerful presence shorn of all illusions; ever more calculating and pragmatic, she now begins to demonstrate the most steely sense of ruthlessness.  There is now something of iron in those soft, dove like eyes which sends a chill down the spine, as we watch, hypnotized, as she very patiently feeds her tormentor Ramsay Bolton to a group of starving hounds.

This kind of archetype is in many ways a very modern one.  Think Sarah Connor from The Terminator who is a gentle, unassuming waitress until the murderous realties of existence close in on her, and in the aftermath is created a lethal revolutionary fighter who lives off the grid in order to protect her son at all costs. Or Grace Mulligan in the excellent and powerful Dogville, who takes refuge in a small town and winsomely tries to win the bonhomie of the locals only to have those narrow minded citizens exploit and abuse her, to the point at which her kindness dies - and she treats them to a very different display of behaviour.   This way in which, to quote Yeats, a terrible beauty is born - from the most profound forms of oppression - gains a particular aesthetic resonance in what might loosely be termed the ‘proto-feminist’ hero of modernity, and despite all her aristocratic trappings, it is this remorseless, ruthless, revolutionary beauty which Sansa more and more comes to bear.  If one were to talk about the most powerful female character in Game of Thrones – or even the most powerful character per-se – one would certainly alight on the figure of Daenerys Targaryen, and yet, at a more profound level, the Dragon Queen might well prove to be something of a red herring in this regard, for it is the power of the future and the outline of modernity which Sansa Stark increasingly comes to posit, and no magic, no sorcery can stand against the tides of historical time.

The final issue on which to mull regarding the subject of the terrifying resonance of Sansa’s burgeoning power – is toward whom it will be directed?  There is already an early indication that Jon Snow, who has now been crowned King of the North – will be displaced by his onetime sibling; and this makes sense, for as we have seen, both Sansa and Snow represent archetypes of two conflicting historical periods.   But one should also take into account that one of Sansa’s central abusers, albeit largely unknown to her, has been Littlefinger himself.  It was Peter Baelish who betrayed her father, and thus precipitated his execution.  It was Baelish too who delivered her into the hands of Ramsay Bolton.   My prediction is that Baelish will succeed in his manipulations, once again he will be able to play off both sides and at the end of it all he will be perched atop the Iron Throne.  But having manipulated the trusting, naive and guileless Sansa so frequently and so easily, the true nature of her becoming - her ruthlessness, will and determination, the person she is morphing into – this is something Littlefinger will remain oblivious to, will overlook, until, at last, it is too late.

And then it is possible that in the game of thrones, Baelish will win the most gruesome, colourful death of all.   So the ultimate prophecy from this red wizard is as follows: when the dragon fire is extinguished, and the zombies have once again returned to the ground, it will be Sansa Stark, who is still standing.